The original Witcher is a strange game, certainly unique. It’s loved by many for its nuanced approach to morality, uncommon pacing, an interesting story with wonderful characters, and a number of clever questlines and twists. I’m sure there are other reasons. It was also so janky and awkward that it was featured in Classics of Game among esteemed company like Tobal 2 (best game of all time?) and Weird Anime Helicopter Skeleton Photography (I do not care what this game is actually named.)
For the many people who only saw the awkwardness, who couldn’t get past the first hour of The Witcher because of the outdated engine and troublesome interface, it might come as a shock then that The Witcher 2 is undeniably an AAA title with one of the best-looking engines around, custom-built. But those people never really stuck around long enough to sense the huge ambition behind it. The Witcher is an epic game, and The Witcher 2 is no different.
It’s still awkward, though. Even the Enhanced Edition, with all its great fixes, has more super-annoying design flaws than can easily be counted. Few systems work the way they should. But with the wealth of content and the obvious love and charm that went into the game, it still ends up being pretty easy to recommend. It’s not quite a masterpiece, but that’s by no means due to any shortage of ambition. Its curse is that it’s not easy to play twice, even though it’s exactly the sort of game that should be played twice.
Story, choice, and themes
As with the first Witcher game, there are no shortage of likeable characters and charming moments. Talking it out with your foes and deciding that you don’t really have any issue with them after all, parting on peaceful terms, is always fantastic. That said, the political elements and various factions of the story are really hard to follow. The Witcher games are the sequels to a series of novels that haven’t entirely been translated out of their native language. If you want to actually understand the game’s story in its entirety, you’d probably have to learn to speak Polish. Yikes. I suspect most of the little references aren’t a big deal–you just have to be okay with feeling completely clueless sometimes. But the game also lacks some of the charming peacetime pacing of the first game, where your major conflict might be stumbling home drunk and having to listen to your girlfriend tell you that you’re a bad influence on your adopted kid.
Depending on a decision the player makes, there are two incredibly different versions of the game’s second act that play out. I found it staggeringly ambitious, laudable, and maybe not the smartest use of resources if I’m being honest. I also found in my second playthrough that the choice that forked the second act wasn’t really the sort of great Walking Dead agonizing moment that I originally thought it was.
In my first game, I hadn’t given the elf Iorveth his sword back during a crisis, probably because I’d read ahead by then and already decided to play Roche’s route first. It turned out that this simple choice changes the way the rest of the first act plays out, which really determines how much sympathy you have for him at the time of the bigger decision later on. The thing is, logically, you had made an agreement with Iorveth, and the best chance you stood of seeing it through was to give him his sword back. In my second playthrough, I found that I didn’t really have to make any tough calls at all, with one possible exception (Stennis). I found that Iorveth’s route had the best environment, the best music, and some really interesting and almost integral plot details I had missed out on in Roche’s route, like getting to know Saskia, and Cynthia, two of my favorite characters. The only real question of my choices was whether the outcomes I wanted were realistically achievable. I felt like I stood on much firmer ground than I ever did in Henselt’s camp.
Both Witcher games are situated in a unique place with regard to adult themes and behaviors, especially sex and sexism. They’re kind of ridiculous with gratuitous sex. It must be a Polish thing. They don’t seem to relegate women to simple rescue objects like We Americans (Canadians etc.) do, but the games don’t always get full marks either. I think the second is better about these attitudes overall, but I’d love to see more analysis of those aspects.
Recurring female character Triss actually does need to be rescued in The Witcher 2, although you can actually pretty much ignore the plot and someone else will eventually rescue her for you. Apart from that tired old trope, the game’s women are often powerful, interesting, and complicated, and I counted at least one conversation between two women that wasn’t about a man. This is surprising when you consider that the story follows Geralt around and he’s almost required to be in every scene.
In my eyes, the games definitely have a unique approach to romance, and seem far less pernicious than Bioware games where romance is a series of manipulation points and typically ends when the characters have sex. How many games will use sex as the starting point? To put Triss and Geralt in a relationship at the beginning and have you work from there seems incredibly daring by the standards of other games. It wasn’t even a Mass Effect 3-style “Oops, we put the sex at the end of the last games and now the story is still going, now we have to figure something else out” situation. Sex came immediately between Triss and Geralt even in the first game. I’m not sure I can name another game with these attitudes. Again, it’s gratuitous, but considering the industry, it seems healthy.
The combat system does some impressive things. It’s tricky, has numerous components to master, and you really hit people, rather than just running through sword animations and swinging through everybody like you’re a ghost, letting your numbers do the talking as if it’s an MMO or Skyrim (which, not being an MMO, has no excuse). At first glance, this all brings to mind the holy grail of combat: Dark Souls. However, there are numerous issues with the Witcher 2 system that bring it from divine down to the level of finicky and frustrating.
The learning curve is all wrong. You practically have to master the game to beat small groups of enemies early in the first act, and then once you get the hang of that, nothing else will ever pose a real challenge for the rest of the game. That doesn’t mean you won’t die: on high difficulties, Dark Mode especially, you’ll die in a hit or two, so everything feels easy right up until you get a little bad luck and you immediately die. There’s no middle ground and no real learning at that point. It’s far too random. You stun a boss and win in the first five seconds, or you hardly make a scratch on it before getting killed due to something that probably wasn’t your fault. I also found parrying difficult to rely on. I played like a slightly less smooth-looking version of this guy (skip around the video if you like), avoiding Quen, putting my points in Alchemy and then Swordsmanship, fighting with high stun chances from Aard, occasionally throwing bombs to do the same.
Nekkers and endregas, early Act 1 monsters, ultimately seemed like the most lethal enemies in the whole game. To get by, I used traps a lot more, and I got satisfaction out of killing enemies with them. But they weren’t fun to interact with, and it ultimately felt more like a compromise than a playstyle choice. If Geralt had been able to retain high mobility while using items–for an extreme example, look at something like Diablo 3’s Demon Hunter–and if traps could be assembled quickly without grinding much for parts, I would have been happy to throw them down in every fight. Throwing knives were worse–throwing them felt clumsy and were a waste of skill points.
When I started my second run, I tried the Full Combat Rebalance 2 mod, pretty much the only Witcher 2 mod anyone has even heard of. For every few great ideas it had came a terrible one, like the auto-parrying system that added even more random number generation to the combat system. I was sad to see how dead the game’s mod scene truly was.
For The Witcher 3, I’d love to see combat enhanced with faster items, no canned instant-kill animations, and possibly no random chances of status ailments at all. It should be all or nothing. The randomness of the system really hurts it, and makes high difficulties more unsatisfying.
Technical & design issues
The game is very rough around the edges. The load menu will lock the game up if you don’t go in and manually prune your saves every once in a while, and the size of them causes problems with the Steam cloud. The UI has some focus issues with gamepads, and toggling between spells is painfully slow compared to a mouse, or keyboard hotkeys. But many of the keyboard controls are unintuitively linked to just a few multi-purpose buttons, matched with their controller counterparts. Minigames like arm wrestling become much more difficult when based on the relative position of an invisible mouse cursor instead of which direction a joystick is pressed. Even choosing dialogue options is handled poorly, as there are no number key shortcuts and while the mouse works, you have to find it first, unlike with Mass Effect’s dialogue wheel, which I believe will just look at the last direction you moved your mouse in. The meditation time wheel really could have benefited from that, too. Quests are often left incomplete in the quest log when there’s nothing to be done in them until you’re through the act, which means that if you’re sitting near the end of the act and aren’t sure if you might have missed an NPC somewhere to move ahead in the quest, all you can do is check a wiki.
Potion toxicity makes no sense at all, having no negative consequences except for preventing the player from using the potion slot they spent a skill point on. It also has no positive consequences for toxic-buff builds: your buffs don’t change whether you’re 10% poisoned or 100%. Potions also take too long to drink, and force you to adopt silly behaviors while you play, which should be completely unnecessary, like reloading after watching a cutscene just to skip it, so your buffs don’t wear off during conversation.
The skill trees were also unsatisfying, and you rarely unlocked anything cool.
With all the random number generator annoyances in combat, the only interesting thing that kept me playing Dark Mode to the end was the presence of exclusive items. But ultimately, these were tedious to build, and having to wear them as a full set meant stripping away any potentially interesting decision-making from the equipment screen, simplifying the game in an unsatisfying way. It’s better to play on Normal, wear whatever you want, and actually get some use out of quest rewards.
There are tons of little nitpicks like these to be made all over the game. The list of improvements patched into the game since its original release are impressive, but there are still loads of problems of the sort that one should have expected an “Enhanced Edition” to have pulled out by the roots. As many issues as there are even now, it’s as if the original release had been a beta. I hope the Witcher 3 doesn’t feel the same at launch.
I saved my biggest nitpick for last, which was that NPCs never shut up. You’d walk by the guy at the inn a thousand times and he’d start to shout his goddamn story a thousand times. I can’t believe the game got through any kind of playtesting phase without some developer either changing the way the NPC chatter worked or killing themselves.
If readers haven’t forgotten, I said this was a charming, epic game that should be played twice. It’s obvious that I don’t love it for its combat or alchemy or skill system or UI. It has a lot of problems. I would have loved to see any of those problems get fixed, but in the end, a game isn’t judged by counting its problems, and in the end, the Witcher 2 is a wonderful thing to experience.